The US Supreme Court came under ugly scrutiny last year, with the much-protested appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by three women of sexual misconduct. So it feels utterly timely that Mimi Leder’s On The Basis of Sexis now arriving in UK cinemas. Leder’s film is not about the Supreme Court, nor is it about Kavanaugh. Rather it deals with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the liberal-leaning legal eagle who spent years fighting gender discrimination before her (much-celebrated) appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993.
Leder’s film, which comes hot on the heels of the hit documentary RBG, depicts the Brooklyn-born Ginsberg in her younger years. Beginning in 1956, when she was a Harvard law student – just one of nine women among the 500 entrants – the film charts her determined rise as a lawyer. Post-college, she’s rejected by top New York law firms, despite her evident aptitude, simply because of her gender. Fortunately, she has her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) to support her, just as she – when he gets sick – sticks by him.
Scripted by Ginsberg’s own nephew Daniel Stiepelman, the film builds towards Ginsberg’s first landmark case, in 1972, when she took up the cause of one Charles E. Moritz, a Colorado single man who quit job to care for his ailing mother. With Moritz then penalized by the income tax authorities – with a ruling that was intended for female caregivers only – Ginsberg seized on this as an opportunity to argue that, on the basis of sex, he was being discriminated against.
Far removed from the typical Hollywood courtroom drama, this is not a film of grandstanding speeches (although Jones does get to deliver a final impassioned address), but an attempt to show how Ginsberg’s actions cracked that glass ceiling. In truth, it’s a little inert, dramatically, though it’s hard not to acknowledge just how important Ginsberg’s story is. Even in film terms, the very casting of Hammer as a supportive husband feels groundbreaking.
Featuring fine work from Justin Theroux, as the ACLU member Mel Wulf, and the mighty Kathy Bates as civil rights advocate Dorothy Kenyon, it’s an impressive roll call of players, led by Jones, who gives a typically considered and astute performance. Together with the documentary RBG, it’s a fine celebration of a woman who still reigns supreme in the Supreme Court.
On The Basis of Sex opens on 22 February. For more details, click here.
1. Stills from On The Basis of Sex.